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We’ve always processed our food. Take a hamburger, it’s dead cow that been subjected to the process of grinding and grilling. Nevertheless, for most of my life, connoisseurs, gourmets and the like have looked down their noses on what’s been called “processed food.” We’ve tended to make a sharp distinction between hand made food and that which has been industrially processed. It seems that distinction is fading, or at least the line is shifting. A seminal moment may have been when we invited the food processor into our homes and kitchens and allowed technology to do more than open cans of processed food.

Sous vide is a term that’s been mentioned elsewhere in this Q&A. I remember “boil in bag”frozen dinners that brought scorn from gastronomes, but highly respected chefs are now using vacuum packaging not only to prepare food to be finished at catered affairs away from their kitchens, but often to be served at the table in their famous high priced luxury restaurants. They’re not necessarily using the technique because it’s efficient, but because it works well to achieve the flavor and effect they want.

It’s easy and probably correct to note that cooking has been evolving for a long time and the big difference may be acceleration of the change, but it seems to me that some note should be made that the kind of processes that were shunted off to industry to make food that’s cheaper or more convenient are now being examined anew with regard to making food that tastes better or is more interesting. Our chefs, and by extension, our home cooks, are becoming architects of the kitchen rather than just master masons. Is there a danger they will lose the hand touch or become slaves of technology or will it allow us to have masters in different areas of a more complex field?

Robert Buxbaum


Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

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Great observations and question, Bux. Briefly, I would say that a growing number of chefs and cooks today are less interested in replicating traditional and classic preparations by mastering traditional and classic techniques, and more interested in creating specific effects that they as individuals envision and desire by using whatever preparations and ingredients and techniques can produce them—or they’re interested in exploring what nontraditional methods and materials can offer to the cook and eater. Sous vide, combi ovens, pacojets, liquid nitrogen, alginates, pop rocks, essential oils . . . Some of these seem to involve more technology than craft or skill. On the other hand, fine chocolate as we now know it is the creation of machinery (fine grinders and conches that can knead the cacao mass continuously for days); as is espresso—and there’s good stuff and bad stuff. I don’t think there’s any danger of “cooking by hand” disappearing. We cook and eat in various ways for various reasons; right now the spectrum of possibilities is expanding.

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